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Michigan football at the edge

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In Ann Arbor the mood is the wrong kind of unhappy.

He uses the word bum. I have never heard the word bum in a football stadium, at least not in the 21st century, but this 40-ish fan in a Michigan jersey is using it. He's yelling at Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg at the top of his lungs.

"CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG? YER A BUM!"

He will say this about 15 more times in the game, always punctuated the same way, with CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG as a question, and YER A BUM! as the answer, always ending on a jolt. At one point he goes so far to walk down at least 15 rows, lean over the black, waist-high iron gate separating the stands from the field, and yell it out at Hackenberg from close range.

He sounds like a man from 1927 heckling Calvin Coolidge, but that works. Michigan Stadium opened in 1927, and its skeleton still resembles that of a stadium built for a time when the press huddled on the sidelines to report, games had to be played at noon to finish before dark, and advertising anything but brute violence and frequent punting was an accident. It is a low, sloping bowl built with no thought of making money, containing noise, or distancing the players from the fans. (To illustrate that last point: I could have thrown a glass bottle into the Penn State bench if I had one. Someone, at one drunken point in the stadium's history, certainly has.)

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Michigan Stadium, and by extension Michigan football, is extravagant in the way only an institution with a long, well-remembered past can be. The stadium did not have luxury suites until 2010, and didn't host a night football game until 2011. (For contrast: LSU has been playing night games in Tiger Stadium since 1931.) The pressbox and suites and big screens aren't intrusive, but it wouldn't feel wrong to call Michigan Stadium college football's only real steampunk arena. The old and the new are both there, but when combined in one form, all you see is the outline of something that in the present is a profligate waste of marketable space, space otherwise devoted to providing clean, cramped sightlines to a football game.

The only things between the goal lines in Michigan Stadium that can be bought or sold are the seats, and the things the people in those seats eat, drink, and wear. There's something beautiful and naive about the 1927 Michigan football experience's refusal to mess with that experience.

This is the year 2014, though, and someone has all too happily done just that.

★★★

Let's start the 2014 Michigan Stadium Experience with the basics, like walking through the black iron gates and noticing that they're handing out water. There is free water at Michigan Stadium today for the Penn State game. The water costs $4.50 inside Michigan Stadium on most game days, a recent innovation after athletic director Dave Brandon banned bringing empty water bottles into the stadium in 2010, citing "security concerns."

Today some of the water was free, though. That was big news, because very few things about Michigan football in 2014 are free now. Take the student section, for instance. For a home slate of Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio), Utah, Minnesota, Penn State, Indiana, and Maryland, students pay $295 each, an increase of one hundred dollars over the previous fee. That price is currently the most expensive in the Big Ten.

(By comparison, USC charges $175 for six home games in the expensive consumer space of Los Angeles. Last year's national title winners, Florida State, don't even charge a fee for student tickets beyond the basic athletics fee included in tuition.)

For that price hike, students already crammed into a sad quesadilla slice of territory got a new general admission policy, one erasing the seniority system Michigan had used for years. That policy reversed when everyone in the known universe despised it, but that price-slicing of Michigan Stadium happens elsewhere in a lot of different ways. Take the large ticket blocks reserved for corporate partners that leave people who've had season tickets for the better part of a century sitting around people they don't know. You can spot them pretty easily; they're like guests at a Catholic mass, in that they have no idea when to stand or sit throughout the services.

The water is free today, though. The kosher dogs cost $6, and the popcorn, sold in maize-and-blue boxes labeled "Popped Maize," costs $5. A souvenir cup costs $8. A non-club level season ticket can run as much as $2,100, and a single ticket for the upcoming Indiana game can cost $115.

They will not probably not cost you this, unless you just like paying face value for things on principle. Michigan tickets are now sold via Groupon, and in discount bundles, and in infamous botched ticket giveaways like the one prior to the Minnesota game, when the purchase of two Coca-Cola products got you admission.

At a tailgate -- one of the ones not sporting a "FIRE DAVE BRANDON" poster -- a season ticket-holder laughed when I asked him about the Coca-Cola fiasco and his particular run-in with the Brandon administration.

"I paid $1,100 dollars for my season tickets. And then I see you're giving them away for a game for a few cokes? And I'm like, why did I buy them in the first place?"

So even as they pile into Michigan Stadium and snicker about the free water, Michigan fans are not happy, and not happy to a degree that exceeds even the usual Michigan grumpiness.

That's an important delineation here. The normal Michigan crankiness involves the complaints that all fanbases spanning a wide age range involve: that they do not run the ball enough, that the stadium speakers play music too loudly and too frequently now, that someone's knees stick into your back in the cramped stands, even with the rows of empty seats visible here and there. We don't run the ball enough. Bo, sainted Bo Schembechler, would never, ever have let a team not run the ball like this.

Those are normal complaints, the kind of ideological complaints any fanbase has in variation. See "Any older portion of the fanbase wondering why they're playing hip-hop where there are children," or "Team raised on fierce offense and naked aggression gets saddled with a dullard defensive coach." That might be me talking about Florida, because it is. The point is that every fanbase is unhappy in its own unique key. When Alabama fans are unhappy, it is because a linebacker has just missed a tackle or because someone has unleashed the horror of a passing touchdown on them. When Michigan is unhappy, it is cold, someone is edging onto your seat cushion, and someone has just done something deeply unSchembechler-ish.

The abnormal grievances, the ones indicative of a real theological schism in the church of Michigan, come from the older gentleman standing up when Michigan takes a timeout -- with one second left on the clock in the first half and Penn State leaving for the locker rooms -- and yelling:

"HOKE! YOU IDIOTTTTTTTT!"

Grievances of that severity can't hide. They become a matter of public fact when 10,000 signatures appear on a petition to get the athletic director fired at a place noted for an outsized sense of its own branded civility. Hell, they become clear when more than 10 percent of the stadium knows the athletic director's name at all, much less wants his head to come barreling down the concrete steps of Section 44.

They come to a boiling point when a Minnesota defensive tackle runs helmet-first into the chin of Michigan's backup QB, and what should be a simple concussion evaluation becomes the flashpoint for a public firefight about the basic competence of everyone involved.

At Coach and Four, the barbershop where Bo Schembechler used to get his haircut, the old dudes drinking PBR and shooting the shit at 2 p.m. on a Friday prior to a gameday would rather be talking hockey, and not football. One of them hands me a beer while I wait for a haircut. I ask him if he goes to games anymore. He shakes his head no.

"Why go to the game when I can walk to my house, sit in my leather chair, have cold beer in my fridge, and a half-clean john to use?"

I ask if he still tailgates.

"Oh, well, yeah. Of course. I'm gonna tailgate. But then I'm going home."

★★★

Fortunately, the Wolverines are playing Penn State. The Nittany Lions have a rebuilt offensive line incapable of passing even the most corrupt building inspector's exam and a quarterback, Hackenberg, who rarely has longer than a gunshot's breath to throw the ball. They barely have a run game to complement their nano-passing game, and just lost to Northwestern, 29-6. Things may be bad for Penn State, too, and that's where Michigan football is as a nation state right now: hoping the next someone is even more of a derelict than it is, then praying to survive the collision.

For example, there are two touchdowns in the game. The last happens with 11:58 left in the second quarter. That's it. Penn State and Michigan both eat all of their popcorn before the movie even starts, then spend the rest of the time scrounging at the unpopped kernels in search of nourishment. Devin Gardner appears to be the Benjamin Button of one-time blue-chip quarterbacks; his time at Michigan has aged him backwards. He remains the kind of fiery leader willing to throw himself out there time and time again, even though playing under three offensive coordinators has left him with the field awareness of a freshman.

It got worse before it got better, and then the game just refused to comply at all. Hackenberg might have thrown two balls further than 15 yards down the field all night. Gardner went out with an injury, and his replacement, Russell Bellomy, threw two passes total. One of those was almost intercepted for a surefire pick-six, but not even the defenses got to enjoy this game.

The highlight of the second half was watching James Franklin call one of the worst fake punts I have ever seen, on a fourth-and-11. No, wait. Watching Penn State burn a timeout to save a yard before taking an intentional safety to get the ball and attempt an onside, then lose that successful onside kick, was more darkly entertaining than anything else that happened.

The kindest conventional thing to say about the game would be that the kickers didn't miss on any of their five attempts. The meanest thing to say would be that the highlight was the field goal kicking. Despite calling a nonsensical timeout to make Penn State run a play on fourth down, despite only getting 12 first downs, and despite rushing for an average of 2.1 yards per carry, Michigan somehow won.

When Penn State looked to have recovered that onside kick, a kind of bitter cackling and resigned nodding kicked in around the stadium. That moment felt like the real summary: an outstanding act of comedic futility, followed by its merciful end.

Michigan allegedly won, but I watched the whole thing. Someone scored more points than someone else. No one won.

★★★

Only two moments from an otherwise regrettable game felt perfect. The first: Dennis Norfleet, kick returner and receiver, dancing to "Atomic Dog," a song introduced on the two screens as "requested by Dennis Norfleet."

That's something many Michigan fans might not really like, in theory. It involves someone other than the band playing music and a player taking a moment away from the historical reverie many seem to want Michigan Stadium to be.

It was also the only thing I can say was unironically fun. Whatever kind of throwback Michigan wants to be, it should leave some room for a tiny kick returner who wants to dance to George Clinton. It should leave room for things that Bo Schembechler might not have known about or even condoned. That's possible, and good, and can be organic and compatible with whatever Michigan is. After all, Schembechler wrote that he would have voted for Dave Brandon for public office, something most Michigan fans at this point would rather cut themselves with a rusty butter knife than do.

The other perfect thing: the halftime show, played by the band in the dark with the stadium lights cut, and with the band lit by beach ball-sized LED globes and lights. The announced crowd was allegedly over 100,000, a number no one really believes anymore due to the administration's desire to preserve the streak of games with six-figure attendances. The show finished with Lady Gaga's "The Edge of Glory," played in the dark as blue and yellow lights flickered in the student section.

I'm on the edge of glory, and I'm hanging on a moment of truth

Out on the edge of glory, and I'm hanging on a moment with you

I'm on the edge, the edge, the edge, the edge, the edge, the edge, the edge,

I'm on the edge of glory, and I'm hanging on a moment with you

I'm on the edge with you.

I don't know what's over the theoretical edge here: a cliff, maybe another steeper cliff falling into oblivion. It might be Dan Mullen, or another coach who won't fit, or another who will but who won't win on the field. Maybe Jim Harbaugh is over that ledge, a Schembechler disciple nearly every Michigan fan acknowledges will be a total dick, yes, but at least he's our kind of dick. Considering how fractured the university's been about football since 2007 and Lloyd Carr's departure, there may be nothing over that edge at all.

Michigan feels like a place that has a legitimate gripe with the detestable present, yet an unhealthy relationship with the past. That moment in the dark felt right, like the entire place wants to just keep the lights off for a while, and wait for the light of day to think things through about where it goes.

When the game was over, they played "Sweet Caroline" over the loudspeakers like they do at Red Sox games. Some people grumped to the exits. Some sang along like they'd won something.